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Pride in Prejudice and the Struggle Against Illiteracy
Pride in Prejudice and the Struggle Against Illiteracy
Pride in Prejudice and the Struggle Against Illiteracy
By Professor Bruce Gans,
Wilbur Wright Community College

Last week students from three community colleges -- -- Oakton, Harold Washington, and Wright-- delivered scholarly papers on an academic panel devoted to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. They did so, as part of the First Annual Intercollegiate Great Books Student Symposium which is a collaborative effort initiated by an emerging organization called the National Great Books Curriculum Academic Community. The mission of the National Great Books Curriculum Academic Community, whose founding members include these three schools as well as Santa Barbara and Arapahoe Community Colleges, is to show interested institutions of higher learning and individual faculty ways to set up Great Books Curricula and offer Great Books core courses of their own. The Great Books Foundation and Don Whitfield have also made an important contribution to this effort.

Underwritten by a combined half million dollars of grants from the US Department of Education Fund For The Improvement Of Postsecondary Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, this new communityís special emphasis is helping academically through Great Books the huge population of under prepared, underserved minority students who attend community colleges.

Importantly, the use of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for this first intercollegiate symposium goes radically against the regnant pedagogical practice, central assumptions of community college faculty and administrators and the publicís perception of these institutions. The ways it does so is what makes it so precious and unique a tool for helping in a multitude of ways the hundreds of thousands of community college students across United States.

Some context is needed here concerning the major problems that encumber community college students and the forms of powerful remedy the study of Great Books such as Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice can offer.

Community college students typically arrive on campus with two handicaps that too often predict early withdrawal and failure. A large percentage test at below college level reading, writing and math. Just as disabling, they also arrive culturally illiterate. If asked to date the American Civil War most community college students will answer 1776 or be unable to even guess a date. Ninety five per cent of them have never heard of Machiavelli. A large number have never heard of ancient Greece. Now it is a universal experience, scarcely limited to community college students, that when every tenth word in a text, when the kind of name a person is given, when every place name, when every custom and object in a culture is foreign, the effect it produces on the readerís mind is that the text is incomprehensible and therefore unreadable. This cultural illiteracy combined with low reading skills often makes comprehending even the surface meaning of college level texts daunting to nearly impossible. Without an intense commitment by faculty to remediate these deficits, therefore, community college students will lack any foundation of the knowledge absolutely required to make minimal sense of the some of the greatest insights into human nature, war and how states operate that, for example, that they would otherwise gain from reading The Peloponnesian War.

This barrier of perception too often condemns community college students to the intellectual ghetto where they presently largely are confined.

What is worse, this cultural and intellectual ghettoization is reinforced by regnant and emerging community college pedagogical practices. Assigned readings in English writing classes not only do not remediate this cultural illiteracy - they fully accept it by normally assigning magazine articles on contemporary issues of race, gender and the issues being debated by the two major political parties at the moment. In fact, the present trend in community college pedagogy is to incrementally get away from the reading of books. Instead we are seeing at my campus, for example, professors teaching comic books - dignified with the euphemism graphic novels--in a humanities and a research paper course.

A planned honors program has a requirement for service learning because as one member of the honors committee explained to me, books are only one way of learning and not even the most effective. Community colleges are also seeing a new wave of textbooks and faculty who exhort the professoriate to have students stop writing academic papers and create instead PowerPoint, internet and multimedia presentations which by their very nature require far lower levels of literacy and which present a fraction of the information and thought of an academic paper.

The growing aversion to using Great Books in community college instruction has the inevitable consequence of costing community college minority students perhaps their first, last and only opportunity to remediate their cultural illiteracy their powers of reading and even more awfully, the increased powers of introspection and pure thinking that is an automatic by product of serious reading which no other formal task ingrains to anywhere near the same degree. Today community college students far more rarely have the opportunity to have presented to them the most fundamental problems of the human condition, the posing of which and the evolving of a personal answer to them, enables a person to live at least to some degree an examined life.

Enter Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice. It will be a couple of months before the video of the students presenting their papers and the student audienceís responses will be available for viewing on the National Great Books Curriculum Academic Communityís web site which is presently under construction.

However it is possible to present a few of the rewards and achievements the study of a Great Books rendered unto these students. The first of these of course is the most important, one which transcends in value the practical skill acquisition; the exposure to one of the most fundamental questions of the human condition presented through the some of the deepest insights into human beings and the nature of true love ever composed.. This increasingly endangered a core mission of a higher institution in providing a liberal education for minority community college students is tacitly championed by the use of Great Books and Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice.

For Austen presents with the unrivaled clarity and detachment of a supreme emotional anatomist, the role that our subconscious impulses, our moral judgment and our maturity play in determining whether a marital relationship will produce a lifetime of deep satisfaction or the reverse.

Hence one of the student panelists focused on the several disastrous marriages displayed in Pride and Prejudice all of which were entered into for the motives that produce so many marriages today. These include Mr. Bennet who entered into his because of his wifeís beauty, charm and good spirits while making no effort to gauge the degree of her ethical seriousness, moral values and intellect. Also discussed was the equally horrifying marriage of Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas which was motivated on one side by the social requisites of his position and the desire for economic security on hers.

The study of Pride and Prejudice also had a cross curricular benefit for minority students. One presenter at the conference, for example, focused her analysis on entailment inheritance law discussed in Pride and Prejudice and the moral issues it raised, which in practice exposed her to questions of historical inquiry, ethics, law and the roles assigned to women in other eras and societies.

Cultural literacy was further enhanced during the literature class where Pride and Prejudice was taught and from which one of the academic panelists emerged, inevitably terms like Reason, the Enlightenment were explained and in the process a foundation of background knowledge supplied that will facilitate greater comprehension in future courses and even inspire new sources of intellectual and cultural curiosity.

Language and critical thinking skills were also bolstered and addressed in the process of approaching Pride and Prejudice because Austen is a satirist on the order of Swift, Twain and Voltaire and analysis of her work inevitably enables students to work on perceiving irony and satire which turns out to be a highly a sophisticated reading and analytical skill most all lack upon entering the class. Moreover, several of Austenís characters in Pride and Prejudice, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Darcey, speak to each other in what amount to polished specimens of deliberative and judicial rhetoric worthy of a Cicero the analysis of which is ideal for helping students improve their writing and critical thinking skills.

And of course, sustained exposure to three hundred pages of Augustan English also contributed to an incremental improvement in reading skills and a sense of read intellectual accomplishment.

A final observation. A Hispanic ex-Marine approached me after a class to share with me his excited pleasure. He had initially approached reading Pride and Prejudice as an unpleasant but necessary job. In reading it, however, he was so excited to learn how people seeking marriage partners so often regard each others with detachment and calculation and in regard to their social and economic places on the ladder that he had spent the past week talking about this moral problem with his wife and co-workers. Without being able to fully realize it or articulate it, in other words, Mr. Morales gained one last key skill from of Miss Austenís Great Books; a new ability to abstract the universal from the particular, to see eternal truths about mankind and himself through the lens of a genius observing a small group of eighteenth century English country gentry - a civilization whose existence he had not suspected prior to the class.

Listening to him, I saw that Mr. Morales was filled with a precious and increasingly rare form of joy - the joy of a freshly liberated - and freshly liberally educated man.

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